KNowing Your Audience: Gen Z Brand Expectations

Published On: October 20, 2019By


Gen Z is on track to become the largest generation of consumers by the year 2020, and accounting for anywhere between $29 to $143 billion in direct spending per year, according to a report by Barkley. As a group, Gen Z currently makes up 32% of the global population of 7.7 billion and there are 65 million Gen Zers in the U.S. alone. Gen Z is defined as people between the ages of 7 or 9 and 22 or 24

Read on to find out who they are, what defines them, and how can brands reach out to them.


Each generation can be defined by significant moments that influences the worldview, attitudes, and actions of those that belong to each generation. For Gen Z, 3 ELEMENTS have significantly impacted the Gen Z experience:

  1. DIGITAL NATIVES: Gen Z is the first generation that can’t remember a time where the Internet was not ubiquitous – they are “true digital natives” growing up fluent in all things Internet and digital. They are used to the world’s information being at their fingertips. Everything can be Googled in a matter of seconds.
  2. PRESIDENT OBAMA’S ELECTION:Millennials helped elect a black president and legalize gay marriage; many generation Zers see these milestones as the norm”, according to Fast Company­. Gen Z is also the most ethnically diverse generation in the U.S. so far.
  3. THE GREAT RECESSION: The oldest members of Gen Z were children who saw how the Great Recession impacted their parents and what that meant for their families. As a result, Gen Z is realistic, pragmatic, and conservative about money. They don’t hold the belief that going to college automatically means a high-paying job. Gen Z is willing to try a less tested path since the default path isn’t a sure thing and doesn’t necessarily lead to success.


Though they are still young, 8 GEN Z ATTRIBUTES are already becoming apparent. Watch more about Gen Z’s attitudes, attributes and values here:

  1. Diverse & Multi-Cultural: Gen Z is growing up surrounded by peers of different races and ethnicities, more so than other generations. Technology has also made it easier to be connected to others in far-flung places, something that was much more difficult years before.
  2. Independent & Competitive: Millennials were raised to be collaborative and team-oriented. Gen Z is more independent.  Therefore Gen Z is independent and individualistic as individuals, but as  a group they are very accepting of others: “Ultra-competitive But Very Accepting.”
  3. Anxious & Lonely: Like other generations, Gen Z can be stressed by the world and 24/7 access to news and information. However, they’re more open than other generations in regard to talking about mental health and seeking help.
  4. Anti-Establishment (to a degree): Gen Z doesn’t place the same trust in large organizations as other generations, largely due to what happened during the Great Recession.
  5. Driven by Causes: While Millennials famously crave purpose in life, Gen Z wants a cause to back.
  6. Not Naïve: Because Gen Z grew up with so much access to information, they naturally don’t trust easily due to the amount of potentially inaccurate information out there. They also don’t accept the status quo as much and are willing to question the way things are and push for change.
  7. Thoughtful About College: Gen Z see Millennials move back home in debt after college and assess that college isn’t the sure thing that Millennials thought. They are more open to different paths in life and consider when/if/how to go to college rather than just what school to attend.
  8. Financially Cautious: Because Gen Z grew up during the Great Recession, they tend to be more financially cautious. Saving money is a priority for them.


So what does this mean for brands who want to reach Gen Z?  Attributes, attitudes, and values that define Gen Z are those that they expect brands to embody. Here are 5 GEN Z BRAND TRENDS we are seeing, as well as how brands are using them to reach Gen Z.

#1 Gen Z wants brands to be AUTHENTIC

Aerie by American Eagle doesn’t use retouching in any of their advertisements – none of the models are airbrushed. Teen Vogue writes, “Four years ago, Aerie made the game-changing commitment to stop retouching their photos. It was a huge move for any fashion brand to make, much less one known for their swimwear, intimates and activewear offerings. In an industry riddled with airbrushing overload and unrealistic body standards, their decision sent the important message loud and clear that real is beautiful.”

Since then, Aerie has also collaborated with well-known Gen Z and Millennial women in their Aerie REAL Role Model campaign. Yara Shahidi (Actress and Activist), Aly Raisman (Olympic gymnast and Sexual Assault Survivor Activist), Rachel Platten (Singer/Songwriter), and Iskra Lawrence (Model and Body Positivity Activist) modeled in their campaigns and participated in speaking engagements about body positivity and empowerment.

#2 Gen Z needs TRANSPARENCY from brands

Brands like Everlane and TOMS make transparency a priority. Everlane explains how their products are made and TOMS explains how the money they make go into benefitting different causes they support.

Everlane’s tagline of “Modern Basics. Radical Transparency” make it clear what the company stands for. On its website’s About page, Everlane explains how it chooses the factories they work with, as well as show photos. It also provides a “True Cost” explanation of different items, breaking prices down into components such as material, labor, transport, duties, etc.

TOMS proclaims that, “With every TOMS purchase, you stand with us on issues that matter.” The company showcases stories on its website so that consumers can “Learn More About What We Give”.

#3 Gen Z expects to COMMUNICATE DIRECTLY with brands

They expect brands to be on-call online, preferably via social media. The level of expectations for responsiveness and customer experience keep increasing and it is now the new norm that brands are very active and responsive through their social media channels. Consumers expect to be able to post about a bad experience in social media and a brand will respond to make their experience right. Savvy brands know that social media can be a tool for both reactive and proactive customer service.

Wendy’s has long known that its fans have been asking them to bring back spicy chicken nuggets for a while. This cause gained momentum in May 2019, when Chance the Rapper tweeted at Wendy’s to bring them back. One Wendy’s Twitter promise and 12 million likes on a subsequent Chance the Rapper tweet later, spicy chicken nuggets made a triumphant return to Wendy’s menu. Naturally, the whole story of how this came to be has been documented on Wendy’s website.

#4 Gen Z expects brands to REFLECT THEM through products & advertising

Since Gen Z is the most diverse generation in the U.S., they want representation and some brands are meeting this demand and knocking it out of the park. Writes Glamour,“When Rihanna launched Fenty Beautyin 2017, she did so with 40 different shades of foundation. This inclusive debut collection—and its massive success—disrupted the beauty industry, making it clear to other makeup brands that there was a demand for a wide, diverse range of tones. Rihanna pretty much set a new standard in the space. And she’s not stopping.”

Gone are the excuses against developing inclusive ranges for makeup brands. Brands need to take note and evolve!

#5: Gen Z trusts BRANDS LESS and trusts INDIVIDUALS MORE

Brands will have an uphill battle reaching Gen Z since they may not be as loyal to brands, preferring to back and follow individuals. These they follow online via social media. Many brands partner with influencers on a line or a product, or make individuals the face of a campaign, hoping to tap into that a fanbase.

Maddie Ziegler, a dancer, actress, and newly minted 17 year-old, has partnered with Fabletics: “Kate Hudson’s Fabletics partners with Maddie Ziegler on an exclusive, limited edition collection ushering in her first-ever activewear collaboration…The Maddie Ziegler <3 Fabletics capsule marks Maddie’s first-ever activewear collaboration. Inspired by her fun, youthful spirit and love for dance, Maddie’s collection consists of effortlessly cool styles that are alive with color and deliver total confidence through universally flattering fits and fabrics.” 

In a recent tweet, French luxury goods brand Dior, announced an exclusive collaboration between Dior Makeup and Dazed Beauty, featuring “six incredible women who love their skin”. This campaign takes cues from many brand implications mentioned above – choosing individuals to partner with who have large followings, showcasing authenticity in “a series of conversations that take the subject of appearance beyond skin deep”, reflecting ethnic diversity to show that their products are for many people, and announcing the #exclusivecollab via Twitter – with nary a traditional press release in sight. Dior makes it clear that they’ve set their sights on Gen Z.


No one KNows about shifting needs and expectations in the world of shopper insights better than KNow Research.  We work with retail brands, stores and sites throughout the year to help them better understand the crucial ‘whys’ behind shopper behavior.  Let us help you get to KNow what your shoppers need and want and how those expectations are shifting.

Explore the future of retail and what that means to you and your target audiences, contact us to start your exploration: and watch more about Gen Z’s needs and expectations here: and read more from our friends at Bankrate on “State of Gen Z personal finance: Are the kids alright?”.